For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?
An erg is just a gigantic pile of sand. But by gigantic, I mean really hugely unimaginably gigantic, miles and miles of waves of sand, hundreds of feet high. Most desert is flat, crackly mud and rocks, but the erg is the strange, terrifying kind of desert you see in movies, that golden sea of light and shadow.
People do not try to live in an erg, because that would be catastrophically stupid. The erg is not really land in any normal sense of the word. Although it looks stable enough, you can certainly walk on it and sit on it and pitch a tent on it if you wanted to, it is constantly in motion. The people who live on the solid ground in the vicinity watch it move over the course of the year, and they will tell you that it changes a little bit every day, but sometimes, a couple of times in any year, a true storm will sweep through and in the morning, the erg will be completely different. It is nothing but sand, after all. It has no real shape.
Trade deadline day is the massive sandstorm that reminds us- those of us who never knew or dared to forget- that hockey teams, too, have no real shape. We’re apt to gloss over this irritating fact. We give them names, after all, and try to believe that those names mean something, but everything that comprises the team is arbitrary- the name, the city, the symbols, and especially, the players. Fans are constantly in the process of trying to convince themselves that a dune is really a mountain, that all these shifting bits and pieces, or at least some of them, have are real distinct shape and a real distinct meaning. We try to define the boundaries of our personal dune, but then the winds pick up and suddenly part of our dune is over in someone else’s and somebody else’s sand is piling up on the far east side, and where the hell did that pile of grey pebbles come from? That was not here yesterday. You try to select the particular people or attitudes or styles of play or management or whatever that are characteristically your team’s, and when that fails, you say, fine, I guess I’m just a fan of the laundry, until one morning you wake up and find that someone has put a big yellow slug logo on all the laundry, and then you say, fine, well, whoever they are, whatever they wear, this is the team of my city. And then they move the team to
As I said, nothing can live in an erg, nothing grows. It is exciting and dramatic, the constant change, the spectacular views, but it is not solid enough for things like life and growth, which require a more boring environment with stable land and regular rainfall. Which is why they say that the erg is not a real place, it has no landmarks, it has no identity. Nothing in the erg can be mapped or named or defined, it has no real nature, it has no soul.
Hockey teams do not, generally speaking, have souls, nor do they need them. Players, maybe, have souls, but their souls, their hearts, are entirely their own- their passion remains theirs, exclusively, we just get to watch it. For the players, for the management, and especially for the fans, it is sufficient that the team be comprised of talented, committed individuals who can play an exciting game and win regularly. Those are the only real functions of a hockey team: to play, to entertain, and to win, and they can be accomplished easily with a revolving-door roster and some cagey managing.
Nevertheless, sometimes, something happens to take root in the erg, and sometimes, equally rarely, some hockey teams develop a soul. There is no consistent pattern or predictability or process to how it happens. It is sheer luck, or fate, if you believe in that sort of thing. Some patch of sand stays solid enough, long enough, the right seed lands there at the right point in the season, and eventually there’s a tree where there absolutely shouldn’t be. And it hangs on in that spot, spreads out its roots, stabilizes the surrounding sand, and it becomes a place. People notice it, remember it, travelers use it to navigate, playing children use it as a meeting spot, tourists take pictures of it. It is only a tree, nothing very remarkable in the wide world, but in the context of the erg it’s an attraction, an object of fascination and interest. It is the only place that is actually a place, that was there yesterday and will be there tomorrow.
And so it is with the player who really roots himself in a given team. It doesn’t happen often or easily, and the circumstances are as individual as the people involved. The guys can be gregarious or obnoxious or sweet or even sometimes downright shy, they can play any position or style, they can be from anywhere, the only thing they have in common is that they stay. Everything else gets blown around from year to year, and sometimes even from day to day, but they find something so compelling in their city, their team, that they stay. It is no small achievement to do that in hockey, it requires patience and tenacity and considerable talent, but more than that, it requires a uniquely expansive passion for the game, one that sprawls out and finds its way into other people. Some players have the ability to draw you into the game as they see it, so that their vision becomes their teammates' vision becomes the fans' vision becomes the city’s vision and suddenly…
The team has a soul. It has a character. It has a personality. It has a face.
Just as the particular patch of sand was nowhere until the tree grew and made it a place, so the team is just arbitrary objects until a player comes along and gives it a soul. But in both cases, the effect is fragile. Just as it cannot be planned, neither can it be transferred. If a particularly terrible storm comes along and blows away the tree, it is not simply going to grow somewhere else, and that particular patch of sand isn’t just going to grow another plant. The place is gone. Similarly, a player who has been the soul of one team does not, when traded, become the soul of the new team. He may continue to be a good player and a good teammate, he may develop an affection for his new location, but that is not the same thing. The relationship that makes a player ‘the heart and soul of his team’ is not because of his nature or the nature of the franchise he plays for, but the combination of the two. It is utterly unique, and once broken, cannot be repaired.
A player who is willing to give so much of himself, who is willing to let his soul become the team’s soul, is always a little bit crazy. There is no place for that kind of devotion in hockey. That extra measure they give will not make them more money, it won’t make them a better player or get them more ice time, and dare I say it, it won’t even get them more love or respect from the fans. Hockey fans love their game, but like anyone who has chosen to live in an erg, they are adaptable. They know their teams will change and though they may rant and rave and whine, in the end most of them will stick with their franchise no matter what, largely indifferent to the 'heart and soul'- or lack thereof- on the roster. Moreover, a fan is generally speaking more attracted to talent than anything else, and a player who is great enough on the ice will be respected, admired, and loved no matter how selfish, mercenary, or vicious his personality, while even the most passionate and sincere and hard-working guy will be much criticized and even vilified if he slumps. Fans love many things, but nothing so much as winning.
A player who becomes the soul of his team moves us not because he is necessary, but because he is entirely unnecessary, because he is a curiosity, an aberration. Because his is a quixotic generosity and an ultimately unrequited love that serves no real purpose. It captures us as only things which are rare and unexpected and undeserved can.
Trade deadline day came and all kinds of news and rumors and confusion swirled everywhere, and I mostly just wrapped myself in a sheet and kept my head down and hoped for the best, and when it was over I dug myself out, wiped the sand out of my eyes, and was deeply relieved to find my own little dune not so very much different from the way I had left it. My Habs lost one much-loved fixture and gained a couple of new faces, but for the most part, we are going to go as far as we can with the team that we have, with our amazing special teams and our weak five-on-five, our disappointingly unproductive Russian wingers and surprisingly productive Czech centers, with our hard-working 4th line darari and our total lack of superstars, complete with (almost) the whole spectrum of blessings and curses that have defined our season thus far, from Souray to Niinimaa and everything in between. And most importantly, with our overpaid, undersized, injury-prone heart-and-soul, who I will never take for granted again. Because I know now how rare and fortunate it is to have a team with a soul, how fragile that bond is, how easily it is broken, and how little it means in the end. Which, ironically, makes me appreciate it all the more right now.
The mantra of trade deadline day is hockey is a business. Everyone repeats it, on TV and on the internet and in the papers, in every discussion. This is the existential statement that helps us make sense of what happens at the deadline, the belief that is most comforting, the idea that helps us weather the storm and find our bearings in the new terrain it leaves behind.
It’s not entirely true. It is only one of many existential statements we make about hockey through the year, depending on the circumstances. We say it now because it is appropriate to the occasion, and on different occasions we will say different things, all of which will seem equally true in their proper moments and equally ridiculous out of context. We do not say hockey is a business on jersey retirement nights, we do not say it when we speak of our favorite players and most memorable playoff series. The team that wins the Cup will not say, we are victorious due to our vastly superior business sense! We will not say such things on Hockey Day in
And as the final line of defense, when we have tried telling ourselves all these things and yet remain confused or upset or conflicted, we will sometimes shrug and say, Hockey is just a game.
Hockey is just a game.
Hockey is just a game the way ice cream is just glucose, love is just a feeling, and sex is just repetitive motion.
The way an erg is just a pile of sand.
The way Ryan Smyth was just an Oiler.